Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Review - Hard Magic by Larry Correia

Short review: Jake Sullivan is a magically augmented war hero ex-con private eye beholden to the Bureau of Investigation who shoots people a lot. Then he joins up with a magic secret society and shoots more people.

Magic and mobsters
Scratch the mobsters, add in knights
Guns not characters

Full review: Hard Magic is a work that is stunning in its overall mediocrity. Taking the idea that magical powers began manifesting themselves among humans in the 1850s and setting his story in the Prohibition-era United States, Correia manages to produce a book that is full of action-packed magically augmented gunfights and is tediously boring at the same time. Full of cardboard cut-out tough guys, two-dimensional damsels in distress, and mustache twirling wooden villains (who often seem to be awful racial stereotypes to boot), Hard Magic desperately wishes it could be a cross between The Maltese Falcon, X-Men, and The Lord of the Rings, but ultimately it amounts to nothing more than a series of combat scenes linked together by a limp and unconvincing plot.

The central conceit of the story is that along about the middle of the Nineteenth century people began to manifest magical powers. Those who do have access to magic seem to have just one power - some people can control fire, others can possess and control animals, others gain superior strength, a few can heal injuries, and still others can teleport. Some people have very weak or limited powers, such a "torch", who can control fire, but only enough to create or douse a flame the size of a pocket lighter. People with usable magical powers are called "Actives", and pretty much just about every character of any note in the book is one.

Oddly, while the presence of magically augmented humans has wrought some political changes, it doesn't seem to have changed the world in many ways otherwise. World War I happened right on schedule with the only substantive changes being that there was a Second Battle of the Somme involving lots of magically inclined combatants and Berlin ends up turned into a walled city of undead creatures. But the Tunguska Event takes place, as does the Oklahoma dust bowl, although in Correia's alternate world both were caused by the use of magic. The book also makes clear that Prohibition is in effect in the U.S. and the Great Depression has laid the world economy low. J. Edgar Hoover is the head of the Bureau of Investigation, and the Bonus Army marched on Washington only to be driven out by U.S. Army troops serving under MacArthur. On the technological front, despite the existence of humans with preternatural affinity for invention called "cogs", the only real change that is notable seems to be the prevalence of dirigibles in the place of aircraft, serving both as passenger and freight transports as well as warships. It doesn't seem clear why the existence of magically augmented humans somehow makes wildly impractical aircraft like dirigibles and zeppelins into practical and ubiquitous ships of the sky, but nevertheless, they are and appear several times in the book.

Politically, the biggest change seems to be the expansion of power for Japan, which has taken over China, much of what in our world was the eastern Soviet Union, and pretty much all of southeast Asia. Though technically ruled by an Emperor, all actual power is held by the Chairman, a figure who is described as being so magically powerful that he is personally undefeatable and who is served by the fearsome "Iron Guard" of magically powerful warriors and the "Shadow Guard" of magically augmented ninjas. The Imperium is, according to various characters in the book, a fairly hellish place, with "Actives" powerful enough to be useful impressed into service, and those who aren't herded into camps to be experimented upon with the hope of discovering how to enhance the power of those with magical abilities. Everything about the Imperium is essentially a racist caricature with the worst kind of "yellow peril" overtones throughout.

Jake Sullivan, the hero of the story, is the most hard boiled of hard boiled private detectives and a magically augmented "gravity spiker" to boot. He is a hardened ex-con with a heart of gold, a decorated war hero of the Second Battle of the Somme sent to prison for saving a young black Active from a racist sheriff in the deep South who spent his time in Rockingham prison mulling over and experimenting with his magical gifts before being set free on a work release agreement where he signed up to help the Bureau of Investigation capture a set number of particularly dangerous magical criminals. His story begins with the attempted arrest of Delilah, an attractive "brute" that he has something of a romantic past with. But she's wanted by the BI, so Sullivan is there to help bring her in. The only trouble is that Delilah has some friends who also have magical powers, and the attempted arrest turns into a long fight sequence that eventually results in Sullivan getting tossed out of an airborne blimp.

And this sets the tone for the entire novel, which amounts to little more than detailed fight scene after fight scene interrupted by just enough plot to allow them to be strung together. Before long, one realizes that neither the plot or the characters matter much. What is important in the book is what kind of powers everyone has, and what kind of lovingly described firearm they carry. Unless they carry a sword, because even though the bullets fly fast and free in the fights, they are remarkably ineffective, with characters absorbing massive quantities of lead with limited ill-effects. After Sullivan's fight with Delilah and her allies, Sullivan turns to his underworld contacts to try to find out where she got her help from. His mobster "friends" then send people to try to kill Sullivan but they are interrupted by members of Delilah's group and a member of the Imperium's "Iron Guard", leading to a long fight sequence. We are introduced to the magical "traveler" Faye Vierra, and given just enough of her background before a group of men show up to kill her adoptive grandfather in another fight sequence. Faye goes to San Francisco and promptly finds herself in the crossfire of another fight scene. The bulk of the book is basically nothing more than preparations for a fight, a description of a fight, or the aftermath of a fight.

At the very least the fight sequences are reasonably creative, although for the most part they have a tendency to be overlong and tedious. But the writing in the book is somewhat weak and frequently repetitive - for example, when Faye Vierra first reaches San Francisco, there is an extended two page description as the country girl marvels at the sights of the railroad station and adjoining city street. This wouldn't be particularly noteworthy except that Corriea uses the word "astounding" to describe the sights no fewer than three times in these two pages. The series this book starts off is called the "Grimnoir Chronicles", clearly an attempt by Correia to evoke the "film noir" style of cinema, which is reasonable enough, but he feels compelled to clumsily try to put a lampshade upon his made-up word not once, but twice, and the end result is to highlight just how silly the neologism is. The whole book is pretty much written this way, with bland prose punctuated with adoring descriptions of weaponry and detailed accounts of the multiple grievous gunshot wounds suffered by the various combatants, although these wounds seem to almost never be fatal.

The plot, to the extent there is one among all of the superpowered characters futilely blasting away at one another, is the conflict between the secret "Grimnoir Society" and the Imperium as they contest ownership of Nicholas Tesla's "Geo-Tel", a MacGuffin that seems to be similar to a nuclear weapon in effect. Years before the events of Hard Magic, the Grimnoir Knights foiled an attempt to use the Geo-Tel to destroy New York City, and instead of destroying it, they broke it into several pieces and had members take them and scatter across the world and seclude themselves. Now, it turns out, someone is tracking them down, killing them, and claiming the parts. The Grimnoir Society quickly figures out that the Imperium is trying to assemble the weapon so they can take over the world, but before they can act, Madi the leader of the Iron Guards (who coincidentally just happens to be Sullivan's estranged brother) launches an attack upon their hideout in San Francisco before melting a chunk of the city with the local "Peace Ray" installation Imperium agents had taken over with a ninja assault. Madi kidnaps Jane, the Grimnoir Society's healer, and then heads off to deliver the Geo-Tel to the Chairman. After all of the Grimnoir are healed up, they set about chasing after Madi while Sullivan goes to find the last piece of the device. Then the huge "twist" in the story is revealed, which only works because the supposedly incredibly crafty and intelligent Chairman acts like an idiot. And of course there is a huge, extended, tedious gunfight and a showdown between Madi and Sullivan that only concludes in Sullivan's favor because both Madi and the Chairman act like idiots. Also, swords are apparently much more damaging to people than getting shot multiple times with rounds of either .30-06 or .45 caliber ammunition.

In the end, both Madi and the Chairman are vanquished, their plots for world domination foiled, and almost all of the heroes return home alive despite being repeatedly shot, stabbed, burned, blown up, and otherwise eviscerated. The lone exception is Delilah, who Sullivan establishes a romantic relationship with, and must therefore be sacrificed so that Sullivan can have some tragic character development. And this is really the root of the bland and flavorless mediocrity that pervades Hard Magic: To the extent that there is anything other than descriptions of people mangling one another, it is all worn out cliches and tired tropes. Even the premise - introducing magic into the modern world and creating an alternate history - isn't particularly original or even that interesting. Unless you are intrigued by nearly endless fight scenes and don't mind a paint-by-numbers plot in a standard-issue fantasy world populated by cardboard characters, there's really not much reason to bother reading this book.

Subsequent book in the series: Spellbound

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